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'I tell my students this,' says Tarn Ream, who teaches West African dance classes at the University of Montana. 'I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will keep learning that dance until I feel it.'

When people ask Tarn Ream what she does, she's never quite sure what to say.

"I have a million different jobs at one time," she said.

One day she's teaching West African dance classes at the University of Montana. The next day she might be teaching a community class with Unity Dance and Drum, or at the Center for Music by People with Disabilities, or in the public schools with the SPARK! Any Given Child Initiative or the CoMotion Dance Project. Or working as coordinator for the annual Festival of the Dead.

Or maybe gardening and researching trillium flowers.

In the early '90s, the Missoula native was working in a molecular biology lab on a Ph.D. track when she first became interested in dance.

After a diagnosis of leukemia, and a year and a half of intensive care, plus about five years of treatment, dance took an even more central role in her life.

"It was very cathartic," she said. "In the sense that when you go through really intense treatment like that, your body is taken away from you. You have to give in to it. So it was nice to be physically in your body, but then released from the physical world as well, and dance has the ability to do that for me."

Her partner at the time, Michael Meyer, was her primary caretaker. He loved drumming, and she loved dance, and they both found release in African forms of the art. They traveled to Seattle and Washington to take classes, and founded a local group, Unity Dance and Drum.

After her treatment was over, Ream said it had taken a toll on her brain function, and she knew she could never work in a lab again. She continued finishing her master's project, studying the trillium, though.

"They're a very long-lived species. A little tiny plant can live to be over a hundred years old," she said.

Someone at the University of Montana heard that she'd been teaching dance, and invited her to lead a class on campus.

Her courses in the fall and winter session can pull in up to 40 or 50 students at a time.

"It's doable because the energy is so huge," she said.

Her specialty is West African dance, but she includes traditions from other parts of the continent and imparts the meanings as well.

"I tell my students if you come just to dance, you might as well drop my class. Because my teachers taught me the tradition and I feel it's important to not just show you how to dance, it's important to transmit the information that goes with each dance," she said.

That information includes different rhythms and songs, a dance's history and the groups who invented them.

She's aware of the issues of cultural communication versus appropriation, and the fine line between the two.

"I think it's a good way of bridging cultures. Here I am, a white girl who grew up in Montana who's doing African dance, right?" she said.

"My African teachers are very, very adamant about how this is a way to bring people together," she said.

She sees herself as a perpetual student who's imitating her instructors, even learning a dance from multiple teachers until she's boiled down the consistencies, and then passing the techniques on to her own students.

"I tell my students this. I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will keep learning that dance until I feel it. Feel it in my body and feel comfortable with it, and feel comfortable teaching," she said.

***

Last year was an emotional one for Ream.

In February, the avalanche on Mount Jumbo wiped out the home of her friends and neighbors, Fred Allendorf and Michel Colville. Colville, an artist, died from her injuries. Allendorf, the University of Montana professor who first stirred Ream's interest in trillium plants, survived.

Ream led the effort to clean up the debris, which was the subject of a short film, "Amplifying Kindness."

"It's an act of kindness to have compassion for another person, and it can amplify," she said. "I think that's the beauty of art. It's a way to put that out there.

Later in the year, she was awarded the annual arts educator award by the Missoula Cultural Council, a nonprofit that promotes performing and visual arts in the city.

She also won a statewide artist innovation award, which are given every two years by the Montana Arts Council, funded by the state and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Then in February, she won an "Equality Warrior" award from the UM Women's Center for One Billion Rising, a local gathering she organized as part of a national event to end violence against women.

Between all these activities, she still found time to serve as coordinator for the Festival of the Dead, the local multicultural celebration that marks a way to honor the deceased.

She joined as a performer back when co-founders Bev "Beck" Glueckert and Michael DeMeng organized the event, and helped keep it going after they stepped down. She's continued to this day. The festival this year officially became a program of the Zootown Arts Community Center, which has offered free art classes centered around the parade for several years now.

"If it wasn't for her, I don't know if the Festival of the Dead parade would've lasted all these years," said Kia Liszak, executive director of the ZACC, who's known Ream her whole life.

"Tarn is very passionate and dedicated toward everything she does," she said. "She's a powerhouse."

The festival, she said, is a way to help those who have lost a loved one.

"When you go through treatment for five or six years, you see a lot of people die around you, you realize the impact that has on your community. I guess, having lived on that edge myself, it was like 'How do you give a voice to the people who are still here who are grieving?’ ” Ream said.

Our culture has limited tools for those who have lost loved ones, she said, and the festival offers a window into how other cultures acknowledge death.

"Every year, I get the chills because some piece or number of pieces strike me as being so fantastically beautiful or strikingly sad or difficult. Yet there it is, and it's being faced. There's a different way for each person to face death," she said.

Having been on the edge of life and death changed the way she thinks, and one of the reasons she likes teaching is that it can open up new ways of thinking for people.

"I want to have all the experiences I can possibly have in my life that are comfortable to me, of course, and a bunch of things that are not comfortable to me," she said.

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